The Rise of Public Diplomacy 2.0
Fall 2009 - Number 17

The Rise of Public Diplomacy 2.0

Colleen Graffy

b ack in December 2006, Time magazine did something gutsy. It announced that its vaunted “Person of the Year” was not a politician, personality, or pundit but… you. The cover of the magazine was an iMac with a mirrored strip reflecting the reader as a representative of the millions who make up the grand social experiment that is user-generated content for Facebook, blogging, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia and more. Although it faced ridicule at the time, the decision now seems prescient.

Silicon Valley consultants refer to this new revolution as “Web 2.0”—as if the World Wide Web had just downloaded a new software update. The result is an interactive version of the Internet whereby the user is no longer a passive receiver of information but a provider of content and comment in addition to consumption. Time’s Lev Grossman described the new phenomenon as “an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person.”1

Public diplomacy is the art of communicating a country’s policies, values and culture to the people of another nation. “Public Diplomacy 2.0” is the art of using this new Internet phenomenon in order to achieve those objectives—“citizen to citizen, person to person”—and more.

The “more” is that PD 2.0 requires a new approach by the State Department, and a new type of Foreign Service officer. It requires a dismantling of the institutional cultural barriers between the policy officers and the public diplomacy officers that prevent the State Department from engaging in successful public diplomacy. To a certain extent, but by no means exclusively, this approach is being embraced by mid-level PD officers and below who have grown up with little or no knowledge of the United States Information Agency (USIA), its legendary head, Charlie Wick, or the divisive 1999 corporate merger when U.S.IA was dissolved into the State Department—a merger that didn’t take. The new PD officers are respectful of the admirable work done by their forebearers at U.S.IA but also recognize that new challenges require new approaches and that what worked during the Cold War heyday of U.S.IA doesn’t necessarily work now. In many ways, the rise of Public Diplomacy 2.0 means the demise of U.S.IA 1.0. It means finally moving from a nostalgic longing for a recreation of the old U.S.IA to its reincarnation in a new-look State Department where policy and public diplomacy are merged and the use of new technology second nature.

From closed system to open system

The challenge during the Cold War era was to find ways of getting information from the outside world into a closed system. The Public Affairs Officer, or “PAO,” was a key—and sometimes the only—voice to communicate directly with audiences about the U.S., while the diplomats were busy behind closed doors and out of public view. PAOs had a strong esprit de corps with others in the PD “cone” (the term used to describe the division through which one enters and progresses at the State Department) and served in U.S.IA, a separate, semi-independent body which was the public diplomacy arm of the State Department.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of European state Communism, the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of democracies, a new challenge arose. No longer was the principal task getting information into a closed system, but rather effectively competing in an open one. The informative engagement by the PAO about American elections and cultural themes remained (and remains) important, but the ever increasing demand was for someone to respond (quickly) in explaining U.S. foreign policy and to do so in the arena where people were now getting their information: the broadcast media. While many embassies continued to churn out press releases and host off-the-record, print-focused roundtables on U.S. foreign policy, audiences were increasingly shaping their views from television and radio.

The changing shape of media required more engagement, not less. Yet the default position at embassies remained to say as little as possible, or to do so off the record and in print. Although print still remains important, as does radio, particularly in certain parts of the world, its impact for the person on the street is less powerful than the visual impact of television. The reason for this reluctance toward media engagement was simple: all bureaucracies—and the State Department is no exception—tend to be risk averse. Put your head down and you advance; get out there in the media and slip up, and your career is over. Why take that chance? Especially since going on the media, with a few exceptions, is not part of one’s job description at the State Department.

Karen Hughes, who served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the Bush administration, understood the importance of empowering embassy personnel—from ambassadors on down—to get out on the broadcast media. She did so by issuing “Rules of the Road” which eliminated the need for diplomatic personnel to secure clearance for appearing on in-country media. She encouraged engagement with the media and, importantly, she supported those who went out and got sucked into the undertow of media-gone-wrong—an unavoidable consequence for anyone in the spotlight. These steps reflected a basic understanding: without backing from leadership at the top for those who brave the media, State Department officials will shy away from it.

Despite establishing the “Rules of the Road” clearance procedures, there was no pressure to make media engagement a priority. All that changed with the development of “media hubs” in Brussels, Dubai and London, which helped to generate and facilitate media appearances by senior U.S. government officials. The European and Eurasian Bureau (EUR), under the wise counsel of the first Senior Advisor for the Media Hubs, Adam (now Ambassador) Ereli, created a “Media Matrix” which tracked who was going out on television, where and on what topic. This single-handedly changed the off-the-record default position: When the monthly chart came out showing, for example, that the consul general in Florence was doing more media than the ambassador to Spain, or that the ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (UK) was more engaged than the ambassador to Italy, suddenly television interviews began to be put on the schedule.

Although the EUR media matrix tracked quantity, not quality, it showed a more than 30 percent increase in the media appearances of U.S. public officials overseas. The quality element was addressed by media training through EUR’s Brussels Media Hub, which sent experts out to train any and all embassy personnel who, due to portfolio or talent, were likely to engage the media.

The new Brussels Media Hub has created a sea change in U.S. public diplomacy efforts. It has its own television and radio broadcasting facilities, enabling America to get inside the European media cycle and to tap the myriad U.S. diplomats who come through Brussels with their messages about various aspects of administration policy. Communicating is not limited to where the diplomat is physically; it can take place where the message is needed virtually.

New tools for new times

In addition to adjusting to the challenges of competing in an open system and the need for an increased U.S. presence on broadcast media, the State Department is learning to come to grips with the Internet. While Washington has a talented team working around the clock on the State Department website, the same is not the case out in the field. Many embassy websites are stale, boring and not mission focused. Embassies often do not think strategically or creatively in identifying what should be on their website and where material should be placed, for example, highlighting important information “above the fold” and having key links readily accessible. After the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, a survey of U.S. embassy websites in Muslim-majority or Muslim-significant countries showed that most had not put anything on their websites about the extensive U.S. aid relief to that country.

To correct this deficiency, the EUR Bureau established a weekly internal, visually-driven e-newsletter in order to educate policymakers back in Washington as to what public diplomacy is and what it can do to deliver foreign policy results, and to inspire embassies by sharing creative programming ideas. A monthly external version was also established in order to inform the American public about the tremendous public diplomacy efforts U.S. embassies were engaged in on their behalf. These publications resulted in the launch of “visual communications” training, after the EUR Bureau realized that the quality of embassy images was seriously deficient in an image-driven world. Developing our own, open-source quality images is critical because State Department images tend to be Associated Press photos which are copyrighted and therefore unable to be shared via social media. Photo competitions, Photoshop, photography, and “Getting Visual” training has helped, as has the purchase of new equipment, but there is still a long way to go.

Still, problems remain. A frequent refrain from embassies with lackluster websites is that the Internet is “not that big here” and “connectivity is low” in their country; hence they don’t want to invest time or resources into it. This represents a misunderstanding of the Internet and its importance. First, it is global, hence the name “World Wide Web.” Diasporas are on the Web and communicate with their family and friends back home. Second, even though Internet use may be low, who is using it? Generally it will be key influencers—media, politicians, NGOs, business persons, educators and youth, and they are worth reaching out to. Finally, Internet connectivity and usage will only grow, and in many embassies it will take years to ramp up the staff, know-how, equipment and funding to be ready.

Some embassies have understood this, and are at the cutting edge of using the Internet as a multiplier of their public diplomacy. The U.S. Embassy in Rome, for example, has its own web broadcasting facilities, which enables them to not only get their speakers linked to numerous audiences but also to make the event available to others later via their website or in e-mail links. But this is the exception rather than the norm. Identifying ways to “push out” material onto the Internet is still absent in many overseas posts. This is a critical deficiency; we simply cannot assume, in this open, competitive system, that consumers are regularly checking a U.S. embassy website.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that in numerous countries mobile phones and cell phone technology are as important, if not more important, than the Internet. Text messaging is cheaper and more prevalent in places with no or low BlackBerry connectivity or other mobile means to access e-mail. Many embassies are well aware of this, and use text distribution lists to contact journalists with breaking news or to notify them about an interview opportunity. Some of the more innovative PAOs have created networks by, for example, setting up subscriptions for English idioms-of-the-day as a way of creating a network of English-language-learners and potential new friends of the embassy.

Interacting on the interactive Web

The emergence of Web 2.0 and its interactive use created a new challenge for the State Department and public diplomacy: can diplomats blog? Twitter? Should comments be allowed? Should they be filtered? Who can engage? Where? For what purpose?

One of the first forays into blogging by a senior U.S. government official was made by the State Department’s Legal Advisor, John Bellinger III, who served as a guest blogger on Opinio Juris, a blog site devoted to international law. Bellinger blogged for a week on different weighty issues, such as U.S. detainee policy and Guantánamo, and used the final day to respond to the comment thread following each post. The startling engagement at such a high level received both worldwide attention and admiration.

Nine months after Bellinger’s blogging debut, “Dipnote” a State Department blog site, was launched. It allowed all State Department employees of all ranks to participate and encouraged conversation by welcoming comments, both negative and positive.2 Under Secretary Hughes enabled the State Department to go out into the blogosphere to counter misinformation about the U.S. and U.S. foreign policy by establishing a Digital Outreach Team that could communicate in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

This author has been described as being “one of the first senior American diplomats to latch on to Twitter.”3 The goal was to simultaneously communicate with two audiences—domestic and foreign—in order to help Americans understand what U.S. public diplomacy is all about, and to humanize the American diplomat as an avenue for dialogue with foreign audiences.4 Tweets during trips to Iceland, Armenia, Moldova, Romania and Croatia were linked to video that was uploaded to YouTube and images that were posted on Flickr. Some criticized the venture due to the inclusion of personal observations and experiences,5 but it was precisely those informal postings that helped create an informal, accessible relationship with the reader. Twitter became mainstream soon thereafter; Dipnote is now on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as well as many embassies, from London to Tirana.

The “Twitter Revolution” which took place after the contested June election in Iran highlighted the role that these new social networking tools can play. Such was Twitter’s importance that the State Department asked them to postpone a system update that would have taken Twitter off the air at a critical time during the Iranian protests. After CNN was forced to leave the country, it was completely dependent upon “i-reporters”: the masses of Iranians willing to risk their lives in order to capture images and share their stories. Those activists did this for no reward except the knowledge that they were letting the outside world know what was going on—and hopefully, changing their own world at the same time.

In a way, Time magazine’s Grossman foresaw the events in Iran when he wrote about the impact of Web 2.0 in empowering the individual: “It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”6

Social networking tools are multiplying the outreach capabilities of embassies in a way that was never possible when engagement was only face-to-face. It is likely that movement away from a focus on libraries, print journals, information centers and face-to-face meetings will be anathema to senior and retired members of the Foreign Service, but it is the reality of how communications have changed. This does not negate the need for a physical presence and personal contact but it does underline the need for embassies to learn how to develop and maintain and staff up for virtual relationships.

Social networking tools also resolve a lot of public diplomacy challenges in the field. They allow public affairs staff to engage with masses of individuals without the need for members of the public to travel to our now often isolated and distant embassies and go through off-putting security controls. Embassies find that social networking tools enable them to post their own materials more quickly and efficiently on sites such as Facebook than waiting for management to upload them to the official embassy website.

Other innovations are also afoot. During his tenure, Hughes’ successor as under secretary, Jim Glassman, used Public Diplomacy 2.0 as a means of countering extremism by bringing together organizations from various countries and partnering them with Google, MTV, Howcast.com, Facebook and others to build an Alliance for Youth Movements. In the same vein, the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau’s State Alumni Networking site and ExchangesConnect on the Ning platform are each excellent developments in their own right, as is Co.Nx, the new video link product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, which is helping to create wider linkage for video webchats. The recently arrived Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Judith McHale, has signaled her desire to keep and develop these new media tools while not abandoning traditional outreach. And a new position, that of senior advisor on innovation, was created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in order to further blend diplomacy and technology.

Merging policy and public diplomacy

As wonderful as these new social networking tools may be, Public Diplomacy 2.0 must also include a new attitude toward who engages in it. On October 1, 1999, at the event marking U.S.IA’s formal merger with the State Department, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared: “In our era public diplomacy is not simply nice to have. It must be a core element in our foreign policy.”7

Many believe that “centralizing” public diplomacy under the department run by the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy (known as the “R Bureau”) and gathering all of the public diplomacy officers “back under one roof” (a.k.a. the U.S.IA model) is the structure that will enable public diplomacy to “be a core element in our foreign policy.” But this is the wrong approach.

Public diplomacy cannot be a core element of foreign policy if they are seperated. Power at the State Department lies in the geographic bureaus where policy is formulated. PD officers gain from decentralization, not centralization. Embedded in the geographic bureaus and at the policy table, they are part of a new team whose members learn first-hand from the PD officer why they need to incorporate public diplomacy into their policy thinking. The esprit de corps that existed under U.S.IA exists again, but this time with PD officers who feel valued and empowered at the policy table, and connected to their PD colleagues.

To that end, the Secretary of State should mandate that every geographic bureau have a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy whose sole portfolio is public diplomacy. This individual should be dual-hatted to both the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and the Assistant Secretary for the relevant geographic bureau. Without such a “front-office” presence for public diplomacy in the policy world, public diplomacy will always be relegated to second-class status, no matter how strong the R Bureau may be.

Similar to the power of Web 2.0 in empowering the many, not just the few, all Foreign Service officers, not just those in the PD cone, should be equipped to understand and engage in public diplomacy. Many PD experts point out “traditional diplomats don’t understand or appreciate what effective PD can achieve.” True. So why do we think that separating public diplomacy officers from traditional diplomats will help them to understand or appreciate PD better? The R Bureau and public diplomacy officers alone cannot achieve public diplomacy successes. It will take everyone.

Public Diplomacy 2.0 should mark the end of the separation of policy and public diplomacy. The operative question today is not whether public diplomacy officers are contributing to policy, but whether policymakers are contributing to public diplomacy.

 

Colleen Graffy is Director of Global Programs and associate professor of international law at Pepperdine University, School of Law in London. She was the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy to be appointed to the U.S. Department of State and served in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

 
  1. Lev Grossman, “Time’s Person of the Year: You,” Time magazine, December 13, 2006, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html.
  2. http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/entires/welcome/.
  3. Gideon Rachman, “A Categorical Imperative to Twitter,” Financial Times, June 30, 2009, 11.
  4. Colleen Graffy, “A Tweet in Foggy Bottom,” Washington Post, December 24, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/23/AR2008122301999.html.
  5. Nathan Hodge, “Diplo-Twittering at the Department of State,” wired.com, December 24, 2008, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/12/diplo-twitterin/.
  6. Grossman, “Time’s Person of the Year: You.”
  7. As cited in Dell Prendergast, “STATE and U.S.IA: Blending a Dysfunctional Family,” Foreign Service Journal, March 2000, http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/3.htm.